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Researchers develop way to effectively recycle stubborn Styrofoam: 'Efficient and potentially economically competitive'

"Cost- and energy-efficient ways to break down plastics to their primary building blocks such as polystyrene are urgently needed."

"Cost- and energy-efficient ways to break down plastics to their primary building blocks such as polystyrene are urgently needed."

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A team of experts from the United Kingdom and Massachusetts is working on a cost-effective way to recycle pesky polystyrene — commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam — which regularly arrives on the front porches of most homes in the form of product packaging. 

Known as polystyrene in labspeak, the material often ends up in landfills, or as ocean pollution, after it has protected our merchandise in the mail. 

Experts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Bath report that their science "has the potential" to reuse up to 60% of polystyrene. Current methods can surprisingly only recycle under 5%, according to a press release from the experts. 

That's in line with overall lackluster plastic recycling, which is at around 5% to 6% in the United States, depending on the estimate. 

"Chemical recycling techniques are a major focus within chemical engineering right now, and cost- and energy-efficient ways to break down plastics to their primary building blocks such as polystyrene are urgently needed," Bath senior chemical engineering lecturer Bernardo Castro-Dominguez said in a story by Interesting Engineering. 

Polystyrene's composition makes it well-suited for protecting the often fragile products shipped around the world each day. But the experts said the material's structure is what also makes it hard to recycle

The team is using pyrolysis as a solution. The polystyrene is heated in a vacuum until its molecules degrade into monomers, building blocks for the material. But after being heated, the monomers aren't pure enough to be recycled. 

The experts developed a "distillation" process as part of a multi-step approach that provides reusable materials for a variety of products. The pyrolysis needs about the same amount of energy as a microwave that runs for a half-hour to create about 2.2 pounds of recycled material, all per IE and the experts' lab summary

"Our analysis finds polystyrene to be an ideal candidate for a chemical recycling process. Surprisingly, the process is energetically efficient and potentially economically competitive," Worcester professor Michael Timko said in the IE story. 

The experts considered cost, air pollution, and other factors involved with the combustion and overall recycling method. 

They "concluded that not only does the new process consist of scalable, proven technologies, it is realistic in terms of economics and energy use, and a net savings of emissions relative to combustion — all good things to keep polystyrene out of our water, out of our food, and ultimately out of our bodies," the lab summary states

About a half-percent of the world's plastic waste ends up in our oceans. That translates into a staggering amount of trash that is causing a pile of trouble in the seas and beyond. It is widely reported that microplastics are found in the blood of a majority of people tested. A story by Nature highlights a three-year study that links the tiny pollutants to increased heart attack and other health risks. 

Finding plastic-free alternatives is perhaps the most effective way to eliminate the pollution. Replacing throwaway sandwich bags and plastic water bottles with reusable containers can prevent pounds of plastic from ending up in the trash each year. The move could also save you significant cash.

Innovations in development to tackle the problem also include a water bottle from Cove that breaks down 200 times faster than plastic.  

The new Styrofoam effort could help to reduce the vast amounts of packaging-related plastic pollution we make. The experts there are now working on ways to better the process, possibly including other plastic waste streams. 

Additionally, the lab summary states they are "developing new, and even more efficient technologies for plastic recycling."

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